Johnny Tapia, known as “The Baby Faced Assassin” early on in his legendary ring career, was born on February 13, 1967, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tapia was raised by his grandmother after losing his mother at a young age in what can only be described as a very tragic start to life. Tapia turned to boxing at age nine and won the National Golden Gloves in 1983 as a junior flyweight and as a flyweight in 1985. The heavily tattooed, born-again Christian had “Mi Vida Loca” (“My Crazy Life”) tattooed across his chest; the inking would one day serve as a fitting epitaph for Johnny both in and out of the ring. The likeable, charming Tapia would go on to have a great championship career. Shortly after turning to the professional ranks, despite often sidetracked by problems outside of the ring, it was clear that Tapia was one of most natural-born fighters to come along in some time.
Tapia turned pro in March of 1988, with a four-round draw against Efren Chavez in California. He would then ring off 16 straight wins taking him into the spring of 1990. In his 18th fight, he captured the United States Boxing Association (USBA) super flyweight title, stopping Roland Gomez in 11 rounds in Lake Tahoe, Nevada. By October of 1990, he had made four defenses of the title before being derailed by problems out of the ring. Tapia was away from boxing for almost four years after being suspended for drug use. He returned in March of 1994 and picked up four straight wins to restart his career. In his fifth fight of 1994, he picked up the North American Boxing Federation (NABF) super flyweight title. In his following bout in the fall of 1994, he would capture his first world title, the World Boxing Organization (WBO) super flyweight title, stopping Henry Martinez in the 11th round in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Tapia remained unbeaten in his next 14 fights, defending his WBO title 10 times, taking him into the summer of 1997. He was then matched against crosstown rival and fellow Albuquerque native Danny Romero in what was sure to be the biggest fight of both their careers up to that point. Along with Tapia’s WBO belt, the tough and talented Romero had his International Boxing Federation (IBF) super flyweight title on the line as well. In an outstanding performance, Tapia beat Romero over 12 rounds via unanimous decision. The reigning king of New Mexico boxing fans was now a two-time world champion. Over the following year, Tapia would make two defenses of both belts in over fights. In his last fight of 1998, Tapia would add the World Boxing Association (WBA) bantamweight title to his trophy case with a majority decision over Ghana’s Nana Yaw Konadu in December in Atlantic City.
In Tapia’s second bout of 1999, he lost his WBA title via unanimous decision to Texan Paulie Ayala. He would go on to win the WBO bantamweight crown with a unanimous decision win over Jorge Julio in January of 2000 and successfully defend it in May of 2000 before again falling to Ayala via unanimous decision in their October return match.
After three wins over 2001-‘02, Tapia was again a world champion capturing the IBF featherweight title in April of 2002, beating Mexican veteran Manuel Medina over 12 rounds in New York’s Madison Square Garden. In November of 2002, Tapia would drop a unanimous 12-round decision to Mexican legend Marco Antonio Barrera. Over the next three years to the end of 2005, Tapia would fight five times, posting a 3-2 mark. After taking a year-and-a-half off, Tapia again returned to the ring in 2007. He would fight four times in as many years, winning every bout. Johnny Tapia’s final fight would be a win over former world champion Mauricio Pastrana in June of 2011, fittingly in his beloved Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Sadly, less than a year after his last bout at age 45, Tapia was found dead in his Albuquerque home. It was later reported he had died from complications related to heart disease and high blood pressure though drug overdose was also bandied about as a cause for death. He left behind his beloved and devoted wife, Teresa, and their three children.
Despite often attracting media attention for his struggles with his life outside the ring, the wildly popular and charismatic Tapia should be remembered for what he was inside the ring, a truly great fighter and a multiple world champion. Johnny Tapia died one year ago this month on May 27th, 2012. Gone but never forgotten.
Rest in Peace, champ!
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